Photo by Fernando Medina
If I pay a whole lot of attention to what’s been said and written recently, joining the MBN community right now is sort of like moving into a mansion that was just built on an active fault line. That is, the features are fantastic–there’s an MVP candidate playing out of his mind, a perennial fifty-win team still coached by one of the league’s best, nightly entertaining performances by Gilbert and the Stretch Fours–but everybody is treading lightly, anxious about the disaster that might be on its way. Everything happening right now is in the shadow of Dwight’s free agency, the latest addition to a litany of plagues that will descend upon us all and end the world in 2012. The sky will rain blood, locusts will descend upon fields, and ESPN will run constant speculative pieces punning on Superman. Every time Gilbert bricks a pull-up or Otis Smith says something short-sighted, the summer of 2012 looms as the unspoken consequence, that time when the franchise will be called upon to pay the price for its mistakes or reap its successes. And it’s still fifteen months away.
Last week’s trade deadline, of course, is a huge reason for the anxiety. As the story goes, this is the time of year where Dwight gets to watch other A-list talents shape their own futures while he’s wondering aloud whether he should be tweeting about his teammates’ hustle. For the most part, free agency for the past year has been an arms race in the East, and the thinking is that Howard must look around and see Carlos Boozer getting open looks from Derrick Rose drives, or hear that Amar’e loves New York’s “1, 1A punch,” all while wondering if there is going to be anybody left to help form his own Justice League in Orlando. To a large extent, this is totally understandable. Gone are the diluted early 00s where Allen Iverson could drag a team to the Finals. Ours is an era flush with real talent, where great teams have multiple weapons and more than one A-list player. Eddy demonstrated this just a few days ago here at MBN, illustrating the extent to which the rest of the East elite has real star production at multiple and complementary positions. Of course, it can’t be said that the Magic can match their competition in marquee names, and it seems like management may be losing its grip on ever changing that.
Even if you argue that the big mid-season trade was necessary to shake the malaise off the franchise, you have to wonder whether Otis Smith isn’t reaching for the comfort of veterans whose name recognition belies declining productivity. Marcin Gortat, Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus–all key role players as the Magic ascended to its current level of success–have been jettisoned over the past few seasons so that players like Vince Carter and Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas can fill the role of “crunch-time scorer” or “guy who can create his own shots.” It seems like Otis and Co. have forgotten that none of those guys were creating shots in the 2009 Finals and have let go of glue guys who create depth and fill out a system that, in its best moments, can seem balletic in its spacing and inevitable in its production. Add to this the bleak cap situation, and the fact that Otis Smith is saying things like “Our problem at this point has nothing to do with not having a backup center,” or ”We haven’t made shots. I wish I could tell you it was something we had to do differently. We just have to make shots.” It’s not clear if Otis is really not able to come to terms with the shortcomings of his roster or if he’s just saying what you and I know–Orlando is all in with the pieces it has, and the fixes are going to have to come with the guys in the locker room right now.
I am not trotting out the tired accusation that the Magic “haven’t tried to build a contender.” Of course they have. Just like the Cavaliers did for LeBron and the Jazz tried to to with Deron Williams and the Nuggets tried to do with Carmelo. All those teams paid for guys they thought would help them win. All those teams paid the luxury tax. The problem is that all of those teams also made mistakes. Like Cleveland punting on the first round for years to come away with Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison, solid players that were never going to light the world on fire. Or the Jazz effectively swapping Carlos Boozer for Al Jefferson, even though Jefferson doesn’t have the sort of mobility that can function in Utah’s system. The Magic have worked to build the team that Dwight can make himself into an all-timer with. The trouble is, that as the roster looks a little less like the Finals team all the time and Dwight continues to grow into the star he knows he is, it might be that the Magic have just…missed. Just made a few mistakes here and there and now they don’t have their fantastic second center or a wing stopper draining kickout threes. Maybe Dwight sees this and all of the worry the past few weeks has been justified.
But here’s the thing about this Magic team, and one of the biggest reasons I’m excited to cover it. It may well be that none of those shortcomings are quite so bad as they seem. It may well be that the team that waxed a tough Thunder squad is the real Magic once the kinks are worked out. It may be that SVG reminds us all come playoff time how good he is at finding gameplans to take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses and Dwight does what the best center in the league can do. Because there is no way around the fact that there are players around Dwight, and a coach who has implemented a style of play designed to take advantage of his star’s talents in a great way. And none of this is even to mention the labor situation, which may change the way top-level players move through the league and render this point moot (in fact, I plan to write very soon about how Dwight will be a big test case for the labor situation). The fact is, I can’t think of another NBA team with as high a ceiling and as low a floor, another team that is competing at such a high level right now and still facing franchise-altering stakes. So, while I understand the worried tenor of the past few days, I also have to say how excited I am, how fortunate I feel to cover a team with so much possibility.